Harry Reid: racist or political realist?

Critics are calling Senate majority leader Harry Reid racist for suggesting in 2008 that Obama was electable because he was 'light-skinned' and had 'no Negro dialect.' Republican National Chairman Michael Steele says he should resign.

Jim Young/Reuters
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), shown in this photo taken on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 24.

Critics of President ObamaRepublican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele foremost among them – see no small amount of hypocrisy in Mr. Obama’s forgiveness of Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Senator Reid is quoted in a new book by two journalists about the 2008 campaign, “Game Change,” as saying privately that the US would be “ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’ ”

When the quotes came to light Saturday, Reid apologized to Obama, and Obama accepted. Mr. Steele and others say that is political relativism, with Democrats evading punishment for comments that would have sunk Republicans.

Reid’s importance to healthcare reform speaks to the political expediency of forgiveness – Obama has had few more earnest or effective allies on Capitol Hill. Yet some black commentators have a different take: For them, what Reid said is not all that shocking.

'Too black'

Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance and social commentator at Syracuse University, doesn’t see Reid’s statement as a matter of individual racism, but as a calculation of political fact.

Reid “wasn't necessarily giving his own opinion. Rather, he was giving his assessment of the preferences of the American public,” writes Dr. Watkins on the website, theGrio.

Reid is “a bellwether of public opinion and an accurate reflection of the ‘political pulse’ of the white American voting population,” he adds.

Watkins's conclusion: It “reminds many African-Americans across the country that if our speech patterns or appearance are 'too black' (whatever that means) or too different from what some consider acceptable, we are going to be deemed inferior.”

Obama's strong ally

Obama clearly has political incentive to forgive Reid. That the Senate now stands on the cusp of passing a historic healthcare reform bill – Obama’s No. 1 domestic priority – is testament to Senator Reid’s backroom dealings as much as to Obama’s undoubted desire.

Moreover, Reid could pay a political price for his loyalty: A poll released Saturday puts Reid behind any of three potential Republican challengers in this November’s US Senate election in Nevada – partly due to Reid’s leading role on healthcare reform.

As a result, Obama is unlikely to throw one of his most devoted colleagues under the bus.

“I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart," Obama said.

The Lott precedent

But what about 2002, asked Mr. Steele on Sunday morning talk shows?

Then, a Republican Senate majority leader (Trent Lott) was ousted because he, too, made insensitive racial remarks: The nation would have been much better off if Strom Thurmond had won his presidential bid in 1948, Senator Lott told Mr. Thurmond at Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration. Thurmond’s 1948 platform backed racial segregation.

Reid’s words echo that Jim Crow mind-set, Steele said, and yet Obama forgave fellow Democrat Reid while he endorsed Lott’s ouster. Steele called on Reid to resign.

Democratic Committee Chairman Timothy Kaine sought to explain the discrepancy on the Sunday morning talk shows. Reid’s comments were in a positive context – supporting Obama’s candidacy – whereas Lott’s appeared to suggest that segregation of black Americans was a good thing, Mr. Kaine said.


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